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The dangers of the brain in avalanche terrain.

You may be relatively new to winter walking or an expert winter climber, but avalanche awareness applies to us all and unfortunately, I don't think we can ever sit back and say we have it all sorted. It needs constant awareness and practise both at home and in the mountains. I hope if you are reading this, you have managed to get some previous avalanche training and have been made aware of the Be Avalanche Aware process. If not get yourself online to find out more, or download the handy PDF. There are also leaflets in shops and ski resorts which are free to take home and are a useful resource as well as booking onto an avalanche awareness course for some more practical training.

From a good understanding of the Be Avalanche Aware process, reading an avalanche forecast planning and decision making in avalanche terrain should be making some sense. However, there is a grey area that surrounds all this good decision making and that is 'The Human Factor'. We have all heard the saying 'we are only human' and it is true, we are, and with all our amazing feats, we also have some human programming, short cuts might be a good way to think of them, which can catch us out. These mental short cuts can be very useful, how would we ever decide what to buy in the super market or what to wear or how to know when to stay away from snakes, if we hadn't created some short cuts. The human brain has developed these short cuts to fast track complex decision making so that we don't have to work as hard every time we need to make a decision. This is generally a clever system. Unfortunately, avalanches are a complex area to learn good decisions from, as we often end up in a negative feedback loop, where we 'get away' with a potentially poor decision, don't get avalanched and so believe our decision making is great which might lead us to expand the areas in which we think we are safe to operate in avalanche terrain. For this reason, experienced mountain professionals need to be just as careful as a novice winter walker. These Human factors or Heuristic traps have become an area of interest in the past few decades, not only in Mountain sports, but also in the world of Aircraft, Economics and Business. Currently research is still being developed to work out strategies for managing 'The Human Factor' in avalanche terrain, but I believe a good starting place is an awareness of some of the ‘Heuristic traps’ and some easy to implement ways of helping you to manage them within your group.

If you research 'Heuristic Traps' or 'The Human Factor' you will find a long list of names for different factors. I have chosen six of the ones which seem to be most common in the winter environment, selected by Ian Mccammon a well-known researcher of Human Factors in avalanche terrain and heuristic traps.

Familiarity: An individual’s use of a previous experience in this situation or on familiar terrain, to make decisions now. E.g. 'I have walked down this slope every time I have finished a climb in this area and it has never avalanched'

Acceptance: The tendency of individuals to participate in activities which they hope will be approved of by their peers or someone they wish to impress. E.g. We should climb Ben Nevis today via Tower ridge because my friend climbed it last week and they might climb with me if they know I have done that route.

Consistency: The necessity to stick with a prearranged decision, more likely a time-line, route or descent, summit fever often comes into this one. It can also relate to an attachment to an individual or group image. E.g. We have driven all the way from Devon to climb The Buacaille Etive Mor this weekend, so nothing is going to stop us. We must descend this way, because it is the only way I know.

Expert halo: individuals of a group may rely on decisions of those perceived to have more experience, skill, knowledge or assertion. E.g. I don't think it looks safe to go down that way but they say its fine and they did a winter skills course last week, so they must know something else about the snow conditions.

Tracks: (or social facilitation) is the tendency of a person to increase or decrease the amount of risk they are willing to take depending on the presence of other group members. Powder day! Let’s go!

Scarcity: Ignoring potential risks because of a finite time or resources. E.g. a powder day for skiers, or a week of storms and the first good weather day, where the weather will allow climbing, all avalanche caution goes to the wind.

Perhaps you have read this and remembered a time when you made a decision, based on one of these factors. It is very easy for rational decision making to become clouded by one of these Human factors. I recall clearly a day very early in my winter climbing and walking apprenticeship when we walked into the Northern Corries to climb a route. I remember my friend saying to me 'you don't get avalanches in Scotland' as we walked in together. As we approached the corrie, I noticed a strange line of snow at the top of a steep slope, the usual descent path from the top of the corries. Soon enough we heard the chop, chop, chop, of the Helicopter and discovered two people were being air lifted out of the corrie. This scene didn't stop other climbers. Another team approached a different route by the same aspect slope and were also caught by an avalanche. One limped away with a broken ankle. My climbing partner was adamant we would still climb a route, so we ascended a slightly different aspect slope, but still heavily loaded with wind-blown snow, we probably got away with it. I remember questioning our decision. At the time I didn't understand what caused the snow to be less stable, but I could clearly see avalanches happening. This day was the first clear, sunny day after a week of storms and everything looked great. It was clearly easy for people’s decision making to be over ridden by the urge to 'get something done'. From that day on I went out and got myself some avalanche education and continue to try and assess and reflect on my decisions every time I go out. I often recall that story to friends and groups I am educating, to highlight 'The Human factor'.

It is great to develop an understanding of 'The Human Factors', but it is difficult to catch yourself in the moment making an influenced decision. Through work and reading I have discovered a few methods that might help mitigate some of these traps. These have been sourced from a book by Bruce Tremper, called Avalanche Essentials, which is well worth a read if you want to find out more.

A Traffic light contract:

Heliski guides do this by making a list in the morning of green-light, amber light and red-light slopes from careful examination of the avalanche forecast. Green-light slopes are good to ski. Amber-light slopes can be skied after careful evaluation, drawing together all the observations made during the morning ski and with consent of all parties in the group. For example; if conditions experienced seem safer than expected from the avalanche forecast, they may all agree that the amber slopes would be good to try with careful group management. At no point in the day do they ski the red-light slopes, even if conditions seem better than expected. This way no-one is tempted by great snow or client pressure to ski these slopes and everyone has bought into the decisions. This is possible to do winter climbing or walking and links in nicely with the Be Avalanche Aware planning. It is a great way to completely rule out unsafe areas. I do this when walking or climbing in an area, I will green, amber and red code different ascent or decent routes within an area. This still gives me options but rules out the dangerous options while I am still comfortably at home.

Devil’s advocate:

This is appointing someone to present the sceptical view and identify holes in the prevailing argument. Often in larger groups, 'group think' can take over. This means no-one wants to stand out from the norm and present an opposing view, especially if more negative. Statistics show that people will take higher risks in a larger group. Therefore, by choosing someone to play devil’s advocate for the day, they have the right to oppose ideas in a more light hearted manner, which creates a better discussion at a decision point and is more likely to highlight all sides of the story. For the same reason the US supreme court began the policy of issuing a dissenting opinion for every major decision. It is generally taken much kindlier by the rest of the group if this tactic is discussed beforehand, rather than someone just deciding to play devil's advocate by surprise.

What does it say on your grave stone:

Through a career in the outdoors and looking after people in risky environments I have developed the habit of asking myself what I would say in court. 'I thought that… was a good idea your honour.' It soon brings the sense back into the decision process. However, you may not be responsible for anyone else when you are out in the mountains. You are responsible for yourself and its often embarrassing to look back on a situation where you just got away with it. Taking yourself through how the day would pan out and what would be the situation if something were to go wrong. It has been suggested by a number of ‘decision making’ experts that thinking of all the things that could go wrong and imagining what would be said in the news if something were to go wrong, might help to keep unwarranted optimism in check.

Knowing yourself:

Finally, it is worth thinking through what might be your personal ‘decision making’ traps are. Look back on past experiences where perhaps you realise you had a close call or made an irrational decision and try to work out what biases or Human factor might have led you to that decision. Reflecting and reviewing past experiences can be a great way to learn and develop your decision making.

Plan, Do and Review is a great way to learn more about your decision making each time you go out, as the conditions, environment and people will always be slightly different, so there is always something new to learn. You can start to reflect on Heuristic traps that may creep up on you.

Just remember the mountains will be there another day, so make sure you are too. For more information on avalanche courses see the website or drop us an e-mail and please feel free to share your thoughts or ideas for managing the human factor on the comments section below.

Further reading:

Avalanche Essentials – Bruce Tremper

Thinking fast and slow – Daniel Kahneman

Safety in Avalanche Terrain – Bruce Tremper

Debono's Six Thinking Hats

For more information on our range of courses, winter skills, winter mountaineering and winter climbing check out our website or email us for more details.

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